Author Tiffani Angus on time travels in a secret garden
Growing up in the Nevada desert where no building was more than a few decades old, novelist Tiffani Angus developed a hankering for the historic.
First she devoured stories of King Arthur and Camelot, then she read about Elizabeth I and was astonished to learn that her childhood home still existed.
When she finally moved to the UK to study creative writing, she quickly became obsessed with historic houses and gardens and the stories that laid beneath each century of dirt.
“As an American I grew up where there just isn’t history like there is here,” says Tiffani. “I read about Hatfield House and when I found out it was where Elizabeth I lived as a child and it's where she became queen I became fascinated that it was still around, because in the States where I grew up nothing goes back further than 1950.
“So anything from the 1500s and 1600s, it's bizarre to me that it still existed. The idea of Hatfield House really got this story going and when I came to the UK to do my PhD I was able to go to visit the house along with other amazing places such as Biddulph Grange and Sissinghurst.
“I was a very odd child. I would read King Arthur stories and I got the idea that history exists over there in the UK, not in the States. As I got older I realized I really liked historical research and writing about the past because when you write about the past you are writing fantasy in a way. Because until we have Tardises we will never know exactly what happened but we can imagine. So there's an interesting border between historical fiction and fantasy fiction. I like to write historical fantasy because I can do all the research and find out about real people and then mess with the people’s lives because they are dead.”
Tiffany’s novel, Threading the labyrinth, has been more than a decade in the making in art because of the depth of her research.
The book follows the story of an American owner of a failing gallery, Toni, who is unexpectedly called to England when she inherits a manor house in Hertfordshire from a mysterious lost relative. What she really needs is something valuable to sell, so she can save her business. But, leaving the New Mexico desert behind, all she finds is a crumbling building, overgrown gardens, and a wealth of historical paperwork that needs cataloguing.
Soon she is immersed in the history of the house, and all the people who tended the gardens over the centuries: the gardens that seem to change in the twilight; the ghost of a fighter plane from World War Two; the figures she sees in the corner of her eye. Threading the Labyrinth tells the stories of those who loved the garden across the centuries, and how those lives of her ancestors still touch Toni in the present day.
Tiffany explains she had originally intended to write a ghost story set in an old manor house, but then she decided gardens had a more interesting story to tell.
“I realised that houses are not torn down and rebuilt but gardens are remade much more often and that Gardens only exist because they have borders and because people take care of them and when they are not taken care of they become wilderness.
“So the nature of the garden is that it is tended and when you dig up and plant a new garden the old garden leaves traces behind. The idea is that if these gardens are dug up and replanted all these layers are there underneath and they hold onto time that way and when you put your mark on something some of your energy is left there.”
Her research also took her to local gardens including those at Anglesey Abbey, Ickworth and Audley End. And although a lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, she actually lives next door to the Abbey Gardens in Bury St Edmunds.
“Any place with a walled garden makes me happy,” say says. “I stand in the Abbey Gardens and think a monk probably had a herb garden here 600 years ago - this is interesting to me.”
The book tells the story of several of the people who have worked in the garden over the years and how Toni, the main character who has inherited this land, is haunted by them.
“She starts to experience odd things in the garden and as she learns about her family’s past the narrative will go back in time to four other stories one set in the 1620s and other in the 1770s, 1860,s and 1940s and each of the stories are mainly about the women who worked in the garden.
“They might see people from the past or even people from the future because the garden itself holds onto all its different incarnations through time and it wants someone to take care of it so it reaches out to the characters to seduce them in a way sometimes
“It is in a sense a sentient garden because gardens are only gardens because they have been tended and because they are within borders and this one very much wants to be a garden it wants to be taken care of.
Toni slowly finds out more things about the garden and about who the garden still has in it and who she is related to. At one point she gets locked into a house built into the wall of the walled garden, which is the oldest part close to the manor house. She goes in there one day and gets locked in and she experiences the ghost there and at that point she starts to realise something bigger is going on. She starts to get hints that her family’;s history might be a bit more complicated than she thought.”
The ghost stories in the novel came quite naturally to Tiffani as ghosts were always referred to matter of factly in her family.
“My grandma used to see ghosts,” says the author. “When I was a teenager she woke up one night and her late father was at the end of the bed petting the cat and she was like, well it was nice to see him.
She was so calm about it. So growing up with that made me calm about it. I have never experienced a ghost, I haven’t seen one. I have heard odd things in houses I have lived in. Right now we think our kitchen is haunted because we keep hearing things falling in there but when we go in there nothing has fallen down.
“I just think it's your ancestors who are just hanging out checking everything is OK. I'm not afraid of the idea.”
She believes that historical fiction gives her the opportunity to comment on questions that are concerns in the present day.
“Historical research and fiction a great way to get inspiration for a story and then use it to talk about things that are happening now,” she says.
“Because even with science fiction and fantasy, no matter if it is about the past or another planet it is really about us now. I like to talk about things we are concerned about now but maybe I approach it from the side.
“I think one of the themes from my book is that especially right now, with the pandemic, we want to know we have left some trace behind and that there's hope that there is some sort of future. By looking at the past and thinking about not just our ancestors but people in the past who dealt with their own tragedies we still leave some sort of mark behind.”
She also believes gardens are a useful way for a novelist to travel in time.
“There is also a tradition in children's fantasy fiction any time the garden is a central location quite often it is used as a time travel device so this isn't something new,” says Tiffani.
“Look at Tom's Midnight Garden, The Children of Green Knowe and Moondial - they use it as time travel to meet historical people or try to fix things. But in adult fiction gardens aren't often used as central locations, and when they are it is a place for betrayal, adultery and murder. So I took this idea from kids' books and made it more adult.
“Adults relate differently to gardens than kids do. For kids they just exist but for adults we look at it and think, man that is a lot of work! I don't want to have to weed that! So the idea of the work involved was really important and that's why I focused on the workers and our relation to time.”
The route to publishing her first novel has been a long one, from working on a local newspaper to training airport employees how to spot bomb parts on X rays. Now she is lecturing in creative writing a publishing at Anglia Ruskin University but she only started writing seriously after finishing her bachelor’s degree. The story of how it started is, naturally, a little spooky.
“A friend and I lived on opposite sides of a cemetery in Dayton Ohio and the cemetery was huge and it had the best land and all the hills all the dearly departed got the best views of the city. She took me there and it was really cool,” says Tiffani.
“And she showed me this headstone that was shaped like a pyramid and it had hieroglyphics on it. Later at dinner I said, what if the hieroglyphics were a clue to something? That inspired us to write a novel about it together. We wrote a whole book. It is on my hard drive and it will never go anywhere. It took us a long time to finish it but after i finished that i realised i knew how to write a story.”
Her friend sent her a link to a writing workshop and she never looked back.
About to hit 50 this year, she says: “I tell my writing students a quote attributed to George Elliot: It's never too late to be what you might have been." “
After 12 years of study, several career changes and a first novel out this week it seems that couldn’t be more true.
Threading the labyrinth by Tiffani Angus is out in paperback priced £9.99.